After two days, too many simsars (real estate middlemen), fourteen apartment viewings, and at least sixty bowabs (doorman), the apartment search is over…sort of. Two friends and I have reserved an apartment in Dokki that is under renovation for the next ten days. That means ten more days of living out of a suitcase and ten more days squatting mosquitoes in African House Hostel. Nonetheless, it is nice to have a place that might be called home.
There are multiple ways to search for an apartment in Egypt: 1. Inquire about at the local `ahwa (café) about the local simsar. Landlords/landladies inform the local simsar when their apartments in his area are free of tenants. The simsar will then show apartment seekers these apartments in exchange for a service fee (a month’s rent) upon the signing of a contract. 2. Wander the streets asking each bowabs if there is an apartment free in his or her building. If there is, the bowab will call the landlord and negotiations will commence.
My friends and I attempted to choose the latter route. Starting Tuesday, we wandered the streets of Dokki stopping at each building to ask the bowab if an apartment was available for rent in the building…Word quickly spread that we were looking for an apartment and soon we began to be approached by simsars offering us their assistance (even though it was not wanted). By Wednesday afternoon frustrated by our lack of success, we temporarily acquiesced to the simsar route but were showed an apartment we had seen earlier that day. Thursday afternoon relieved another twist. Not only did all most of the simsars in the area know our faces but they began to work with whatever simsar to help find us an apartment (in return for a cut of his service fee). In the end, we met our future landlady via an Egyptian friend of ours from Alexandria (Gilal). After declaring herself to be our mother in Egypt and allowing us to help oversee the renovation and furnishing process of the apartment, she accepted our reservation deposit. We meet in five to six days to evaluate the renovations and sign the contract.
The above lengthy and frustrating process afforded a glimpse of both an aspect of the Egyptian informal economy and the clash between American and Egyptian cultures. The informal economy works on a network bases wherein the policy of you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours reigns supreme. Simsars trade favors; bowabs call simsars instead of landlords; and information spreads like wildfire. There are no lists of simsar contact information for a specific area, few simsars possess a real estate office (preferring to hang out at the local `ahwa), and the job is part time (and thus generally held as a second job). Cragslist Cairo only caters to foreigners and is priced and localize as such (offering every expensive flats in the Ma`adi area priced in dollars) While the local system may lack of formalization (in the sense of taxation, access to credit, and the accumulation of material resources), this localized system that has little tolerance for those who attempt to act against it or disrupt its established personal network (by cutting out the middle men).
On the culture front, the apartment search revealed the lack of a definitive boundary between aspects of public and private life. As expected it was nearly impossible to find a landlord/landlady that would allow friends of both genders to visit us in the apartment. In America (and the West) association within a residence is a private matter; it is not the case in Egypt. Instead it is assumed or implied that such unsupervised mixed socialization among Westerners leads to partying and sex. As such, landlords/landladies feared tenants would leave if mixed gender socialization was allowed, phrased the lack of mixed gender socialization as a matter of cultural respect, and even stated that while as a grandmother she understood the attitude of young men, she would rather rent the flat to a family.
In sum, been an interesting, frustrating and rewarding two days of apartment searching. Now, I hope to dream in Arabic about something besides simsars, bowabs, and furnished apartments.